Monday, October 18, 2010

Central Otago Tasting this morning

I was at a Central Otago Masterclass this morning, held in the Hilton in Charlemont Place. Struggling as I am with a pretty bad headcold and still recovering from a weekend in the lovely town of Bremen, I wasn't in the best of shape, but I thought Pinot Noir, especially from one of the most exciting Pinot regions in the world, was worth the effort.

We had three flights of 5 wines, each flight from different vintages. For the record, the wines were as follows:

2008 - light vintage, elegant, bright fruit
Domain Road
Maori Point
Desert Heart Mackenzies Run
Coal Pit Tiwha
Te Mara

2007 - big on concentration, small on quantity - very lush, ripe concentrated wines
Northburn Station
Akarua Cadence
Felton Road
Bannock Brae Barrel Selection

2006 - like 2008, but signicantly warmer, the wines are more tannic, higher in acidity, less fruit-driven
Pisa Range
Prophets Rock
Mount Difficulty
Olssens Jackson Barry

I wasn't familiar with most of these wines, the only ones I had tasted before were Mount Difficulty and Felton Road. There was a very clear difference between the three vintages and quality was high throughout, as were the prices (Felton Road was about average price, to give you an idea). The uniting theme, I suppose, throughout all the wines was the purity and brightness of the fruit.

A couple of interesting issues came up in the discussions throughout the morning:

1. There was only one bottle closed under cork. One of the bottles was corked and there seemed to be a bit of bottle variation, even with the good bottles.All the rest were in perfect condition.

2. Terroir. Or lack thereof. It was put to the speaker that, outside of Burgundy, terroir wasn't a relevant issue. That there are plenty of New World Pinot Noirs now with excellent fruit, well made wines at reasonable prices. What is so special about Otago?

3. Prices. All the wines we tasted would retail in Ireland for between €30-€50 (the prices on the sheet supplied were, as usual, completely wrong). Why are they so high?

My own thoughts? The wines, while expensive, were  all of a very high quality. It would be unsual to get that consistency in a tasting of Pinot Noirs from anywhere else. Central Otago does seem to have something about it that produces excellent Pinot Noir. Even in 3 wildly different vintages, the wines were very, very good, but obviously with a lot of vintage variation. To get vintage variation ,but still churn out high quality is admirable.
In many cases, the vines are still very young. If they can produce wines of this quality with vines that are only 10-15 years old, surely the future holds great promise. It is maybe expecting too much to expect great expressions of terroir with vines so young. They are getting complexity, concentration, great fruit expression and balance; maybe the minerality will come. Maybe it won't. Maybe it doesn't matter, as someone else pointed out.
These are hand-crafted wines made by small wineries in a very remote part of the world in a marginal climate with a notoriously fickle grape variety. Of course, they are expensive. The big question is, are they worth it?
We are finding it hard to sell Felton Road at the moment because few are spending that kind of money on any wine at the moment. However, I really do believe the quality is there to justify the price. It is unfair to compare Otago with Burgundy because they are completely different animals. It's like comparing top Australian Shiraz with Cote Rotie. Taken on their own merits, there is complexity, balance, purity of expression. That's good enough for me.


Eamon FitzGerald said...

Fascinating stuff Gabriel. Sounded like a great tasting. No wonder the French harp on about terroir as much as they do.

Will said...

Great stuff Gabriel, thanks for taking time to write this up. Have you any idea of the production levels of these boutique pinots? The question That I always have about these wines is why I should pay the premium to try them. I can find well made fruity wines at half the price. Without vine age I think these wines will struggling for complexity, and perhaps even interest.... I wish they would tone down the prices until they build up a track record a bit more. I've tried some of the big guns (ata rangi, dry river, Felton road) and have never been massively impressed. Very good, well made wines but struggling for vfm. I've also read some reports that question the ageability of these wines

DermotMW said...

Hi Gabriel,

In re "It would be unsual to get that consistency in a tasting of Pinot Noirs from anywhere else." I really cannot agree - go to Tasmania, Yarra Valley, Mornington, Santa Barbera, Carneros, Leyda or Limari and you will find a wide enough range of wineries producing good to very good quality wines. In Australia, you will find a lovely range of wines with tremendous age (a 1992 Bannockburn Serre tasted last year was fabulous) and what of California - a 1989 Saintsbury from magnum tasted a few years ago (from a weak vintage) was superb. This notion that only Otago in the New World produces top quality pinot is plain wrong. Furthermore, most of the other regions are better value for money.

All the best,

Dermot Nolan MW

Gabriel Cooney said...

Will - I'm not trying to justify the prices, but Felton Road have more demand than they can cope with (internationally, obviously, not here). Re VFM, if you can get a good Burgundy at a similar price, I would probably edge in that direction, but the problem in Burgundy is consistency. Ageability - nobody knows because they haven't been around long enough and they are only getting into their stride now.

Gabriel Cooney said...

Hi Dermot, I suppose my point is that there is great CONSISTENCY. There are about 60 wineries in Otago, so we tasted 25% of them and they were all pretty good. Any Pinot tastings I have done have (I probably haven't done as many as you!) have been all over the place. I don't get Chilean Pinot at all I'm afraid including the supposed cool climate ones...